Pharma's 10,000 Losses

Can systems biology save the drug industry?

By | August 1, 2007

One staggering recent statistic was the Philadelphia Phillies suffering their 10,000th loss. According to SportsFan Magazine , "It takes blue-chip ineptitude on the field and off the field to lose 10,000 times in any sporting endeavor, and when it comes to ineptitude, the Phillies have no equals." 1

This hurts. Philadelphia is my adopted hometown, and I've come to realize that baseball matters. It is a great deal more than just fat men in pajamas playing rounders.

However, its relevance here is that the pharma industry may just be giving the Phillies a run for their money in the ineptitude stakes. As a senior pharma industry insider wrote in The Scientist earlier this year, (21(2):42-8, 2007), the teetering empire that is the drug industry is artless in at least as many ways as the Phillies.

Of course, both for pharma and the Phillies, hope springs eternal. There's always new blood and new ideas, and one of the more promising possibilities for the development of new medicines, it seemed to me at least, was the application of systems biology. My preliminary read of the topic suggested that there were two exaggerated, equally erroneous views, one perfectly captured in another context as "impressionable and easily excited but superficial amateurs who view facts through a telescope and do not see the trees for the wood." 2 This group of dilettantes has overpromised on systems biology.

The other camp, dry, donnish and nitpicking to a man, happily provide the backlash. To them, anyone discussing systems biology might as well be spouting science fiction. This group includes academic scientists, industry insiders, and Wall Street analysts.

I find the dilettantes more troubling. Here is an example of the breathless promotion of systems biology, taken from a report by a leading market research company:

• Reductionist biology, which has been the traditional source of drug discovery, will not supply the solutions to complex diseases such as cancer and diabetes.

• Systems biology can provide the most benefit in improving lead optimization as well as providing better strategies for clinical trials.

• Systems biology offers the opportunity to study targets in an integrated network rather than in isolation.

If only it were so simple. It would be, if systems biology were able to "describe and quantitatively model complete biological systems," as Current Genomics so optimistically put it. But that's currently an impossible dream. To illustrate, the full description of just a single pathway in yeast that triggers the first step toward sexual reproduction is taking up the entire activities of a whole research institute, the Molecular Sciences Institute, as described in last month's issue.

Such schisms are, of course, not restricted to the life sciences. Paul Elmer More (1864-1937), a critic and scholar, dealt with pedantry and dilettantism in an essay on modern language scholarship. "The problem," he wrote in 1911, "is complicated by the observed psychological fact that these two extremes of scholarship tend to work together with a kind of tolerant contempt for each other, to the exclusion of the virile scholarship of ideas, which is inimical to both and is opposed by both." 3

In the case of systems biology, what's irritating is that the unfulfilled hype and the subsequent disdain has obscured the fact that systems biology can be valuable and is finding a place in drug discovery. With all that in mind, we sent reporter Brendan Borrell to find out where things stand in industry. His report on whether systems biology can help restock the famously dwindling pipeline of new drug products appears here. Borrell's article describes a number of applications across the industry, gives a measured assessment of their current usefulness and their likely future utility. The dilettantes and the nitpickers are all out in full force in Borrell's story; one of the Wall Street analysts was bold enough to pin his colors to the mast.

Progress requires open-mindedness, educated guesswork, and a willingness to take risks, make mistakes, and learn from them. The dilettante and the pedant aren't going to help pharma, or the Phillies.



1. 2. I. Berlin, The Power of Ideas , H. Hardy, ed., London: Pimlico, 2001. 3.


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Anonymous coward

Posts: 1

August 7, 2007

The author of this article is correct. The dilettantes are correct, and so are the pedants.\nSo far systems biology hasn't turned up very much. However, it is just getting started and it is the _only_ way to go. The hype puts off everyone with a single scientific gene--that is, everyone except the people funding it. It is reminiscent of the renaming of ordinary chemistry as "nanoscience."

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